Matthew Lynn

The EU will regret suing AstraZeneca

The EU will regret suing AstraZeneca
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Well, that will teach them to go around manufacturing a vaccine against a global virus at cost price, and at record speed. The European Union has today said it is planning to take legal action against the pharmaceuticals conglomerate AstraZeneca for failing to deliver enough doses of the Oxford shot on time. 

No doubt European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and her team are planning to be exonerated. They will finally be able to demonstrate that the whole vaccine debacle, for which the Commission has taken so much flak, and which has already caused thousands of unnecessary deaths across continent, was all the fault of the Anglo-Swedish company. No doubt the untrustworthy British will also be implicated. And the slow, inept, and over-cautious bureaucracy in Brussels will emerge blameless.

But hold on. The action could easily rebound on the EU. No sooner had the action been launched than AstraZeneca put out a deftly-worded statement saying it planned to defend itself. 

'We believe any litigation is without merit and we welcome this opportunity to resolve this dispute as soon as possible,' the company said, adding tartly: 'Much work is ahead of us in the EU and elsewhere, as we continue to deal with the terrible pandemic and the roll out of vaccination programmes. AstraZeneca has an important role to play, and our intent remains to do that fairly and equitably at no profit during the pandemic in the EU and around the world.'

In reality, as any lawyer will tell you, a trial is an unpredictable event, and not something to be entered into lightly. To start with, there will certainly be a discovery process. A lot more information will be made public about the EU’s procurement process, so far largely shrouded in the secrecy that surrounds most of its decisions. 

How many doses were ordered and when? How much was paid for them? How much energy, and money, was put into ramping up production, and where was it meant to take place? Where was the original intellectual property created (here’s a clue: try heading west along the M40 out of London). What kind of profit margins was the company making, and would it sometimes be out of pocket? The support staff at AstraZeneca’s lawyers are probably drafting all the requests for information at this very moment.

Next, senior officials, including VDL herself, may have to appear as witnesses in any trial. They will presumably have to submit themselves to cross-examination. And a forensic barrister may well be able to pick them apart piece by piece. At the very least, the appearances will be cringe-makingly embarrassing. 

In truth, the EU would probably be better off letting the whole matter rest at this point. Its vaccination programs is finally getting up to speed, and even though it is behind the UK and the US it will finally manage to make vaccines available to everyone. It has hardly covered itself in glory, and its attempt to grab control of health policy looks to have ended in failure (it seems very unlikely the Germans or French will want Brussels taking charge of the next crisis). Yet a trial is not going to fix that now. The damage has already been done. A legal action may well simply make the whole shameful episode much worse.